Did FDR ‘Plan’ the Attack on Pearl Harbor?

I recently viewed an interview with Gore Vidal. Perhaps you’ve seen it.

In it he recalls visiting Eleanor Roosevelt the day before her death in November of 1962. Vidal asked her if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been planned by FDR. Her response was no, FDR had planned for the Japanese to attack our base in the Philippines instead. But as a precaution the three aircraft carrier groups in Pearl had been sent out on missions just be sure they’d be safe. FDR knew that the coming war would be an aviation war and the carriers would play a major role, a much larger role than the old battleships the Japanese still thought were key.

Before the attack FDR had voiced his hopes that the Chinese would defeat the Japanese and that the French army would destroy Hitler. When both dreams evaporated, he told his cabinet that the U.S. had to get involved in the the coming war. Since the isolationist movement was so strong in the U.S., he had to come up with some other way.

In the movie Tora, Tora, Tora which is widely respected as a historically accurate account of the attack, the Japanese Admiral who was in overall command comes down to the flight deck to speak to his pilots when they returned after the first wave of the attack. He asks if they saw the carriers. They all agree they saw no carriers. The admiral exclaims "What!" he’s stunned. The movie provides no explanation for his reaction. Could it be that the Japanese had received spy reports that the carriers were in place? Had the U.S. flipped one or more Japanese spies and fed the Japanese false information?

In that same movie there’s another scene where the two admirals in charge of Pearl Harbor are discussing a cable from the White House. The one says "It sounds like the President is inviting an attack!". The other responds with ‘Yes, that’s the impression I got too!" 

I’m left wondering. What is your view on this? Thanx in advance – nice site.

Jim Saboe

? ? ?

If you have solid proof that FDR knew, please share it. I don’t have any such proof and until I do, I’ll leave the conspiracy theories to those who insist on pursuing them.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History

(Editor’s Note: For more information on Pearl Harbor and why the Japanese fleet was able to achieve surprise there see "Attack on Pearl Harbor: Why Weren’t We Warned?" (David Kahn, World War II magazine) and "The Spy Who Doomed Pearl Harbor" (Edward Savela, MHQ)

2 Responses

  1. Steve S

    It is HIGHLY unlikely that the carriers were not at Pearl Harbor by design of the President. US naval doctrine, at the time, was that the battlewagons were still queen of the seas. The carriers were to play a support role for the battleships.

  2. Ron Ellis

    Vidal breaks his tradition as an intellect in searching for something not substantiated with evidential proof. Two of the carriers were ferrying planes to Guam and other outposts in the Pacific and the others (I believe at least one was being retrofitted) at a naval base at a Washington state naval base. Agreeing with an earlier post, US naval strategist were in reliance upon large gunned capital ships, and though we were aware of a large Japanese fleet somewhere in the radius of the area (like 600 miles), no one believed they would try something as audacious as an attack on our major naval installation in the Pacific, particularly as Imperial Japanese peace delegation was in Washington at the time. I for one don’t believe in \hypercompetent\ gov’t fallacies of conspiracy theorists; and Vidal contradicts himself by declaring Bush’s regime to be to stupid to engineer the next greatest catastrophe on US soiI; i.e. 911. I think Vidal was pushing too far to find the right answer, and my intellectual respect for him is marred by this quest. What US president would invite the destruction of 3500 sailors, airman, and soldiers, and the crippling of our Pacific fleet as a causus bellus? I really believe we had to fear the Philippines as a target if Japanese expansion; in Mindanao alone, the Japanese had emigrated over 30,000 workers and set up large indusries out of reach of Manila, and weakened American military Authority in the PI. They had a vested economic interest in the Philippines but sought to take out the apple of the US navy at Pearl. Our carriers not there, only points to poor Japanese naval intelligence, relying on spies and individuals using fishing rods to find the depth of those torpedo nets. What happened after that was an old fashioned ass whooping that took about three years to complete. As Steve S. stated; US naval doctrine focused on battlewagons. The aircraft carrier was simply a ferry for planes to land bases and to support the queens of the sea. Vidal, for all his intellect, mystifies me on this one.


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